Together we can

September 23, 2019


Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer an integrated solution for countries like debt-addicted Pakistan suffering from periodical boom and bust cycles. As it is, the deep-seated complex challenges they face make it imperative to seek new ways of doing things.

Strategically, all SDGs are integrated: action in one area impacts outcomes in others, leading to balanced social, economic and environmental sustainability. They are designed to address issues in prosperity, peace, justice and natural environment that are currently defying solutions based on conventional wisdom.

Aiming to bring transformational change in the world with a well-defined strategy, SDGs are required to be mainstreamed in policies, programmes and in institutional working to ensure success. No such thing is happening in Pakistan. For example, given the country’s bureaucratic web it is not yet clear how the new organisations create by PTI will reduce poverty and provide impetus to housing for the poor.

Ad hoc measures operating on the periphery can only result in weak performance as in our case with policymakers tied to reforms agreed with the International Monetary Fund.

Spanning a decade and a half (2015-2030), SDGs are a radical departure from the short- to medium-term recipe in the nature of fire fighting provided by the international financial institutions. They have fragile stability given that the long-term economic growth remains unsustainable.

As at present in Pakistan, unemployment and poverty continue to rise. Wages in real terms are declining owing to high inflation. Decent jobs are getting scarce. In short, the undergoing reforms are accelerating the pace of social exclusion.

The SDGs are stated to be a blueprint ‘to bring the world to several life changing zeros including zero poverty, hunger and gender inequality.’ Pledging to leave ‘No One Behind’, the United Nation (UN) members have committed to fast track progress first for those farthest behind.

The strategy for socio-economic development should be a blend of ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ approach

But critics say that the17 SDGs are creating a ‘mess’ and achieving SDG I — ending poverty — should have been at the top of a very short list of goals to remove the ‘threatening poverty in the midst of plenty.’

Aware of the enormous challenges in achieving the basic objective to end poverty and save the planet, the SDG strategy involves every part of the world in brainstorming and problem solving by developing partnerships of the government, private sector, civil society and citizens backed by international support.

The strategy’s success relies on the ability of citizens, stakeholders, businesses and government to together participate in decision-making. Public-private partnerships involving civil society are of critical importance.

‘Countries and organisations must cooperate rather than compete, stresses SDG17 which deals with the implementation mode. Developing multiple stakeholder partnerships to share knowledge, expertise, technology, and financial support are ingredients for the SDG’s overall success.

Though the SDGs are a common agenda, agreed unanimously by the UN members, the timing, sequence, emphasis on all 17 goals may differ from country to country according to its own stage of socioeconomic development and its cultural milieu. Critics say the local context has been ignored.

For example, Pakistan is facing looming de-industrialisation and thus needs to accord top priority to SDG9 — industry innovation and infrastructure. It envisages building a resilient infrastructure, promoting sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation. It rightly points out: “without technology and innovation industrialisation would not happen. Without industrialisation, development will not happen”. In developing countries, barely 30 per cent of the agricultural production is processed whereas in high-income countries over 98pc is processed.

The SDGs-related United Nations Development Programme project — ‘Decentralisation and Local Governance in Pakistan’ — aims to strengthen the democratic process, local governance and institutions and create an enabling environment for rights-based development and at-risk population to improve its livelihood. That includes making institutions at all levels responsive and accountable to the citizens in effective equitable service delivery.

Somehow in the two provinces, Punjab and Balochistan, the local bodies are currently being managed by civil servants. These institutions are denied the fiscal and administrative authority provided in the 1973 Constitution by the four sub-federations. Community development is a low priority. While doles to the poorest of poor may be marginally increasing in view of rising poverty, individuals at the grassroots should be enabled to fend for their livelihood, allowing them to live with dignity.

Pakistan’s performance with respect to the SDGs can be best summed up by a remark made on September 16 by Ayesha Ghous Pasha, head of a 3-member sub-committee of the National Assembly Finance Committee. She told newsmen that the subcommittee, which includes a PTI MNA, was of the view that the government should advise the IMF to give its reforms agenda a ‘human face’.

On the same day, some members of the National Assembly Treasury benches questioned the government’s performance particularly about the abnormal price hike and the poor showing in the education sector.

That coincides with the statement of the Sindh minister for labour that it was not possible to go to every factory, shop or elsewhere to check whether the workers were being paid according to the salary fixed by the provincial government. Somehow ad hoc official decisions relating to minimum wages are not strictly observed in the country.

The UN also envisaged that institutional mechanisms will be evolved to allow people to hold their governments accountable to achieve the agreed SDGs agenda. In Pakistan, the representative governments are neither fully accountable to the Parliament nor answerable to the rigged electorate. Accountability lies elsewhere.

Democratic accountability can probably be enforced if all tiers of the government are made answerable to each other, the higher to the lower and vice-verse, to improve democratic governance. Similarly the strategy for socio-economic development should be a blend of ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ approach. And the two measures together can help achieve the SDGs.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 23rd, 2019